Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:26 am
For what, in the end, is a tradition, so understood, but a way of making connections in separation, of acknowledging by not repeating?
On Wednesday 20 April, 2005, Wole Soyinka was the keynote speaker at a conference on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. Themed something like “Bridging the Divide Between Africa and the Diaspora”, the conference was a minor affair, with middling attendance, and I might have missed it had I not fallen into conversation with two Jamaican DJs while going to catch a train to the Lincoln Centre to purchase tickets to the screening of Mooladé, the new film by Ousmane Sembene, which would include an appearance of the legendary filmmaker. The DJs were going to tape Soyinka’s address, I gathered, so I decided to change my plans. (I had thus underestimated the appeal of Sembene’s presence at the New York African Film Festival; the Mooladé tickets were sold out within hours.)
The panelists were not distinguished, and my immediate sense of the occasion was that the organisers had ridden principally on the Nobel laureate’s name. Coupled with the spare audience, this fact gave the theme a mundane quality that made me wonder if the afternoon was worth Soyinka’s time. On Monday he had participated in “The Power of the Pen: Does Writing Change Anything?”, an evening of readings organised for PEN by the New Yorker, alongside writers like Margaret Atwood, Ha Jin, Ryszard Kapuœciñski, Salman Rushdie, Nuruddin Farah and Jonathan Franzen. This was his crowd, and it was an exhilarating evening. The Columbia event didn’t compare.
I was mistaken. Not only did Soyinka speak to the theme in the most unexpected manner, he also spoke as if the whole world was present and watching, never mind that the videographers were still grappling with technical difficulties. His point was that diasporic blacks, especially African-Americans, often perceived the African continent through the lenses of power, as the terrain to thrash out the racial battles within the American society. He was referring to the interventions of Minister Louis Farrakhan (whom he refused to name) in Nigeria during the regime of General Sani Abacha, when the leader of the Nation of Islam had attacked Western powers for meddling in the affairs of a black country. Soyinka submitted that as long as leading African-American figures continued to relate to the continent as something to defend without understanding the contexts of a given crisis, the gap between Africans and their kin scattered all over the world would continue to widen.
In itself, the argument was startling. Soyinka had contrasted Farrakhan’s divisive visit to Nigeria in early 1996 with the intervention that he and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu made in 1998 on behalf of Mumia Abu Jamal, the African-American broadcaster and activist serving life in jail. But what hit me with an extraordinary force was the context of this submission. In a half-full auditorium, Soyinka spoke with the full vigor of the conference’s thematic destiny. The gathering was a routine, small-scale, one-day, coffee-break-only affair, but he spoke as if to posterity, as if the entire weight of global black history rested on his words.
Walking out the hall as the usual photo-op crowd converged around the man, I was struck anew with the intimations of the ineffable in Soyinka’s work, the definitive moral quality of his art and politics.
For me, Soyinka the writer and intellectual is an embodiment of the simple-yet-complex resolve to address the world on one’s own terms, irrespective of who is listening; to respect the intelligence of one’s auditor because, in order to capture an artistic or political truth in expressive terms, it is necessary to acknowledge the diversity of “the world out there.” The scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. touches the matter with a fine needle when he characterises Soyinka as a person who assumes his positions rather than proclaims them. Gates’ characterisation confirms my hunches about arguably the most canonical figure in a tradition to which, with luck, one could make a contribution.
The process of a writer figuring out what his subject would be is a slow and mostly unfinished one. Starting out, Soyinka was one of a handful of authors that I read repeatedly. I was particularly drawn toward the “socialist” writers and felt intuitively that I tolerated what they were saying. Think of Paul Aragon, Pablo Neruda, Albert Camus, Toni Morrison, Federico García Lorca, and such others. I took different things from these writers, but through Soyinka, I came to understand the importance of individual consciousness (The Strong Breed); an ethical sense of responsibility toward others, as individuals or as collectives (A Dance of the Forests); and the idea of power (Opera Wonyosi and Kongi’s Harvest).
But I didn’t discover these insights in one moment of epiphany, and none of them would be convincing if I didn’t actually enjoy the writings to begin with.
In a 1962 interview with the South African writer Lewis Nkosi, Soyinka responded to a question about the audience of his work in the following words: “I write in the firm belief there must be at least a hall full of people who are sort of on the same wavelength as mine from every stratum of society and there must be at least a thousand people who are able to feel the same way as I do about something. So when I write, I write in the absolute confidence that it must have an audience.”
Although this statement pertains to the author’s drama which had just begun to take shape, I think that it applies to his art and politics in general. To understand it as informing the context of the speech at Columbia University, one could compare it to Ralph Ellison’s wonderful essay, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station”, whose point is the demand on anyone who follows a vocation “to always play your very best wherever you are, and on all occasions…because there will always be a little man hidden behind the stove”.
Thus, complaints about “difficulty” with regards to Soyinka’s writings didn’t make much sense to me right from the start. Literature is a matter of taste and Soyinka, like Bertolt Brecht, is a master of complex artistic pleasures. I derive sheer aesthetic joy from reading him, relishing every line in The Road in performance, gratified to know that the playwright’s “prime duty is to provide excellent theatre”. I approach nearly everything in Madmen and Specialists in a comic spirit, as if I’m watching a band of drunken but gifted ijala chanters in a cat-and-mouse game with celebrants whose owambe is getting out of hand! The bickering over style between Silva and Chume in Jero’s Metamorphosis thrills me to no end, precisely because it is about the idiosyncrasies that go into making pleasurable art.
Without pleading an ethnocentric identity, I might add that I share a cultural template with Soyinka as speakers of the Yoruba language and its diverse aesthetic, institutional, and customary resources. In the larger context of unacknowledged literary mentoring, however, his status as a writer holds more meaning for me than ethnic affinity could illuminate.
Considering the existence of a body of work and opinions that is usually characterised in generational terms (such writers as Femi Osofisan, Zulu Sofola, Biodun Jeyifo, Buchi Emecheta, Kole Omotoso, Niyi Osundare, Isidore Okpewho, Syl Cheney-Coker, Odia Ofeimun), Soyinka’s intellectual relationship to me is of an uncle. For example, it took me a while to come to terms with Isara, the account of the social and intellectual milieu of the author’s father. On my first attempt, the book struck me as narrating a world I thought quite familiar. I felt a kind of instant recognition on encountering the evocative description of Essay’s stroll through an Isara neighborhood, and I’m not sure whether I stopped reading because I was pleased to know that the experience would last or because I was disappointed to discover that the work had already been done.
Reading Ake was a different experience. I fully identified with the narrator. I recognised myself in the little child who sneaked scoopfuls of Lactogen in his mouth (and sneakily using the tongue to dislodge pasty powder from the roof of the mouth), or who plunged earthward from the high end of a seesaw. When I read Akinwumi Isola’s Yoruba translation of the book, I had the distinct sense of reading an endless letter from an elderly uncle from a bygone era, even though the narration is from the point of view of a little boy.
In their work, the writers mentioned above, some of them my teachers, mostly worked out either explicit aesthetic and political disidentification (Osofisan, Jeyifo) or took the opposite route of ideological identification (Ofeimun) with Soyinka. Writers and scholars of my generation and orientation, however, stand on the shoulders of those who stood on Soyinka’s shoulders and thus have the benefit of a broader vista of an unfolding intellectual tradition. The extremely complex forces shaping intellectual work today make a simple identification or disidentification unnecessary.
Yet I remain ambivalent about the aspect of Soyinka’s work pertaining to Yoruba religion and Yoruba nationalist politics. The interventions in the sphere of religious thought may turn out to be priceless rescue-missions in the slow-blinking eyes of history. His bias toward Yoruba nationalism could well be a function of his steady view of modern Nigerian politics, having played a role at its most decisive points, as evident in Ibadan and You Must Set Forth at Dawn, the latter a work of unusual temperance and statesmanship. The late Suzanne Wenger once said that Soyinka “recognises as his duty…not to keep his hands clean of dirt, but to dive in head-first in order to save what can be saved”. Alain Ricard has also argued that Soyinka’s attitude toward Yoruba culture is a contribution to Nigerian nationalism, and he should know. These are persuasive arguments; Wenger’s statement is confirmed by the dilemma of Forest Head, the Obatala figure in A Dance of the Forests. Still, people from different ages rarely listen to the same music. I would rather that Soyinka resist the periodic enticements from ruthless power-mongers, the kind that brought him within inches of the scandal of hobnobbing with the former president Ibrahim Babangida in Benin City in April 2010.
– Akin Adesokan, the author of Roots In The Sky and Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics, is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.